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Becoming a Qualified Company Secretary

The Robert Walters Leadership Lessons podcast series follows our UK leadership team as they share insightful discussions with prominent business figures. During the episodes you will hear about their career successes, advice for those starting out and to also get their quick take on what they are currently seeing in the market.

In this episode Henry Rymer, Consultant at Robert Walters speaks with John Odada, Head of Board and Board Committees at BP, and Fahrin Ribeiro, Head of Governance, GB and Western Europe, Company Secretary, Willis Limited

In this episode we explore the two routes to becoming a qualified Company Secretary. There is the traditional ICSA modular programme, and the alternative; graduating with a Masters in Corporate Governance with ICSA accreditation. The ICSA modular route comprises of exams, while the Masters combines exams, coursework and a dissertation.

Both courses give hiring managers the confidence that the individual is knowledgeable in the company secretarial role, but here we distinguish these differences from a hiring manager’s perspective.

John is a Chartered Secretary and Governance professional having completed his exams in 2004. John has proved agile and adaptable having worked in a vast array of sectors, primarily within listed environments from the likes of JP Morgan and BlackRock. In 2018, John was asked to be the speaker at the Thomson Reuters Company Secretary Forum, and he is renown throughout the market for having an extremely personable approach.

Fahrin is a Chartered Secretary having also completed her exams in 2004. Fahrin trained as a solicitor in Kenya and was admitted as a solicitor in the UK in 2014 whilst working at the Bank of Ireland. Fahrin’s experience mainly stems from within Financial Services and she has been a panel speaker at the ICSA Conference in 2019. Fahrin was also recently shortlisted as this year’s Company Secretary of the year for the ICSA awards.

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Transcript

Henry Rymer
Welcome to another episode of Robert Walters' Powering Potential podcast. Over the coming months we're going to be speaking with leaders across the Robert Walters UK leadership team along with industry guests discussing their career successes, advice, and to get their quick take on what they're seeing in the market. I'm Henry Rymer, Consultant in the company secretarial team and joining us today we have John Odada, Head of Board and Board Committees at BP and Fahrin Ribeiro, Head of Governance and Company Secretary at Willis Towers Watson.

John is a Chartered Secretary and Governance professional having completed his exams in 2004. John has proved agile and adaptable having worked in a vast array of sectors, primarily within the listed environment from the likes of JP Morgan and BlackRock. In 2018, John was asked to be the speaker at the Thomson Reuters Company Secretary Forum, and he is renown throughout the market for having an extremely personable approach.

Fahrin is a Chartered Secretary having completed her exams in 2004. Fahrin also trained as a solicitor in Kenya and was admitted as a solicitor in the UK in 2014 whilst working at the Bank of Ireland. Fahrin's experience mainly stems from within financial services and has been a panel speaker at the ICSA Conference in 2019, she was also recently shortlisted as this year’s Company Secretary of the Year at the ICSA awards.

Welcome to the podcast! Great to have you both today and thank you so much for your time. You two have been industry peers for quite some time. It was during your studies that you first got to know each other?

Fahrin Ribeiro:
Yes, John and I did our exams together, way back in the day and you know your description of John. John was personable and funny, even then. John and I are both from Kenya originally, and we've been friends since the time of our exams really.

John Odada:
Absolutely and i’d echo what Fahrin has just said, in the sense that we took our exams together, and right back from that point Fahrin was committed to excellence and that's not changed so the nomination that you mentioned Henry, I think is a fantastic piece of recognition for the work which I've witnessed for nearly 20 years now. So glad to be here, thanks for having us.

Henry Rymer:
It's perfect timing with this nomination, so all the best with the awards when we hear about them. Let's start things off shall we. Today's topic will explore the two routes to becoming a Chartered Secretary. For most aspiring company secretaries, considering the profession they all need to determine how they become a Chartered Secretary. On the one hand, we have the traditional ICSA modular route and the alternative of graduating with a Masters in Corporate Governance with ICSA accreditation. The ICSA modular route comprises of exams, whilst the masters combines exams, coursework and a dissertation. Both courses give hiring managers the confidence that the individual is knowledgeable in the company secretarial role, but it would be really great to distinguish these differences from a hiring managers perspective. So, from your perspective, what differentiates the two courses?

Fahrin Ribeiro:
I have to say I have great respect for both. There are advantages to both routes. My experience has been that those in my team would have taken the ICSA course, That route has provided them with a depth of understanding which can only come with experience. However, for those who have taken the MA route, they tend to have been at uni a bit more recently, and have the benefit of recent education and knowledge of more recent developments. That on its own provides a certain amount of adaptability and flexibility. So I've given you a classic lawyers response.

Henry Rymer:
That's a fantastic response and John what do you think?

John Odada:
Absolutely. I completely agree with the description that Fahrin has given. I think they're both good and very credible routes towards achieving the qualification. In my experience they both have different but complementary strengths if you like. I find that the ICSA modular course might have a slight edge over the masters in terms of preparing people who are coming into the profession for day to day aspects of their roles and this is really the bread and butter aspects of company secretarial practice which you go through in a bit more detail by the modular call say than you do on the Masters. The Masters on the other hand, equips new company secretaries, those coming into the profession, with a much stronger grounding on the technical aspects of the role. So this is mainly company law and corporate governance practice in particular, which not only is useful at the start of career, but would actually be really well maintained all through the career as well. So I think they are both good and credible routes.

Henry Rymer:
Perfect. And so just on the fact then that the ICSA modular course prepares new company secretaries for the day to day aspects of the roles a little bit more. Could it be said that If people were to do the Masters degree studied over two years, alongside working in the profession, would that be a good work around the potential lack of experience?

Fahrin Ribeiro:
I would certainly agree with that, I think it would be a pretty good workaround. I don't know, what do you think John?

John Odada:
I think that would be a good workaround because with CoSec practice in house or in professional services, I think hands on, on the job experience there is just no replacement for that. You learn a lot more by observing others, how others react, respond, aside from the hard technical aspects of the role. So I think that'd be a good balance.

Henry Rymer:
And then I guess with the ICSA, a lot of employers will fund the ICSA modular course alongside full time employment. From your perspectives would employers fund the Masters over two years part time?

Fahrin Ribeiro:
In my experience I have only ever come across employers supporting financially the ICSA modular course. I have yet to come across an employer that would pay for the masters one.

John Odada:
I have been fortunate to see both, and actually even on teams that i’ve had the privilege of managing. Supporting individuals through both due to either personal circumstances, preferences or actually in organizational approach which preferred, say for example, the masters over the modular course. In both cases it would have had to be part time so as opposed to taking a block of say a year off to do the masters, it would have to have been through two years which I think was more challenging for the Masters. Once you got to the research and dissertation writing part, because that's very time consuming and harder to fit around a working day. So I've had the benefit of both and have reflections on how easy it is to fit them into a busy working schedule.

Henry Rymer:
Sure. Sure. OK. So if there is anything you wish these courses could be doing differently to better the development of graduates entering the workplace. What would it be?

Fahrin Ribeiro:
You know you already alluded to it in your previous question, I do think the practical experience on the MA route would be beneficial for candidates. So the MA route could benefit from an elective or a little bit of practical experience pre-qualification to augment the learning. You know, like I said, the people who have come down the modular ICSA course have a depth of understanding that can only come with practical work experience.

John Odada:
Absolutely and I completely endorse that Fahrin. I think just generally and this might not be necessarily specific to just these two routes. I think any training program for company secretaries could benefit a lot more from i'd say practical exposure to board facing boardroom experience. A classic example and back early in my career, there's often the point where you'd work through your entire career and only when you got to a more senior level would you then get access to the boardroom, including board papers that thankfully it's changed a lot now. But as an example of that as company secretaries we spend a lot of time advising our boards, committees, executives on various aspects of governance. And this is all with the aim of assisting them in making the right decisions at the right time. So, therefore, a key aspect, what we do is we are gatekeepers of information which gets to them. So having more practical exposures to what good decision making information would look like would be really important and what practical focus on that during studies would be important. What I'm envisaging is actually spending a bit more time on what good information in the boardroom looks like and what bad information in the boardroom looks like as well.

Fahrin Ribeiro:
Good point John.

Henry Rymer:
Perfect. Yeah. really interesting feedback from the both of you. I think having spoken to candidates from the market I completely understand and respect the decision to do either. You appreciate how big a commitment the ICSA modular route has and for those that pass it seems like a real weight has been lifted off their shoulders. You both know first hand from your experience back in 2004 it seems like a huge commitment, it takes up a lot of time out of your schedule, doesn't it?

Fahrin Ribeiro:
Yes, it does

Henry Rymer:
Equally I do have a lot of respect for the masters and it seems that there is obviously this I guess issue around people coming out of the masters with the lesser experience in comparison to the modular route, but the courses from what I hear on the masters are that they seem to be really well run and the students seem to be really well supported which as you mentioned John produces some really technically strong candidates. So both really positive routes to follow up on. Today we alluded to the routes of becoming a chartered secretary. From your perspectives, what other characteristics do you look for when hiring into your teams?

Fahrin Ribeiro:
Henry, i'd say today, particularly for today, if you're asking me this question. I'd say pretty much the same as any other profession. The key characteristics I think that are of real importance are resilience and adaptability. The world we're living in today is changing very quickly and for company secretaries as well. We all need to be resilient and to adapt. I think the technical knowledge of course should always be a given

John Odada:
I'd completely echo that. Because if you think about how things have evolved, looking back to when we were taking our exams. What was then the combined code had just hit and we were I think actually taking our exams off the previous code, which was a two or three page document as well. But then very quickly had to adapt into this new broader principles based code which then changed. Then the financial crisis hit and that also then brought more change. Now we're in this really challenged world where being resilient and adapting through all those different challenges would be critical. I'd also say one other thing, one of the key skills or softer skill is emotional intelligence and the reason why I picked this up is ultimately, governance is about people and it's about influencing people. It's about working with people towards a common objective and making sure that people have the right information to make the right decisions at the right time. Therefore it's very important for a company secretary to know and read their audience. This is not just board facing because we occupy roles of the interface between the business and board and in dealing with all those stakeholders, we need to ensure that we understand the cues that they're giving us that are non-verbal, or understand the tone of messaging and make sure that we adapt back to the resilience and adaptability, we adapt as appropriate as well. So I'd say emotional intelligence is absolutely critical.

Henry Rymer:
That's so interesting and I guess over the last few months we've lost some of those different forms of communication because we've not been in the boardroom physically. How have you adapted to managing board and committees online, or on the likes of zoom?

Fahrin Ribeiro:
We’ve had to adapt very quickly haven’t we John?

John Odada:
Yes, no choice.

Fahrin Ribeiro:
We've not only had to adapt Henry I think we've had to help our boards adapt as well. You know, the business goes on and we've had to make sure that we've enabled all our stakeholders to get going with this new world that we're living in. It can't stop.

John Odada:
The show must go on. Absolutely. That’s very much the focus that there has been and it's important to keep those lines of communication open so if you're not seeing people across the table from you, make time to talk to them before and after meetings to find out actually what works for them. See the extent and obviously working with the chair of the forum to work these into the broader committee practice in the meetings. But what we've all been learning and we've all been adapting we figured out what works, what doesn't work and what works today might not work tomorrow because internet bandwidth will be different and things like that. It's just practical things like that, which we've just had to deal with, but the show must go on.

Henry Rymer:
Totally. Totally. And then, I guess to finish up. For all kind of aspiring company secretaries could you give them a little bit of advice from your experience.

Fahrin Ribeiro:
I think there's plenty of exciting challenge and opportunity ahead. I would advise aspiring company secretaries to make technology your friend and learn to work with it. John was talking about things that you just learned to deal with, bandwidth issues, etc. Learn to work with it and find safe solutions to your problems using it. Also, i'd say boards are changing and they're changing in a positive way, so I would advise young aspiring company secretaries to invest in your communication skills. John talked very eloquently earlier about managing all the various stakeholders from, you know, directors to executives to the business. And there's an awful lot of that and you have to do it in a very technology friendly manner. And finally, enjoy the role it is equally challenging and frustrating, but also very rewarding.

John Odada:
Absolutely. Completely agree. It's technology it is with us, it's changing how we work as company secretaries. I remember very early on in my career annual returns, electronic filing was not a thing, that wasn't there back then so you had to spend a lot of time printing on the right paper and sending things off to Companies House by post with acknowledgement slips and that evolved into clicking a few buttons and filing returns that way. Now we've been talking about robots making those filings under the supervision of other company secretaries, and so technology is changing how we work and how we operate within Secretariat. So the one thing that anyone coming into the profession needs to be able to embrace is technology and it's something which reflecting back on my training was not hugely focused on, but I'd say, anyone who's coming in now needs to have that mindset and embrace it. But also just a broader mindset and approach towards leaning into change and accepting the changes as part of how we operate. Therefore, back to that resilience and adaptability that we mentioned earlier, just having that sense of openness and curiosity to drive things in the direction that the particular organization that you joined would like to drive things and that's why a very open mindset, a sense of subscription to the organization that you actually work for, having that sense of value and common purpose will be will be very important. Aside from the technical skills and qualifications as well.

Henry Rymer:
John that’s brilliant. Fahrin and John thank you very much for these answers it's really, really insightful to get your perspective on things, but that kind of wraps up today. Thank you very, very much for contributing and thank you for spending your precious time with Robert Walters. It's been a real pleasure and hope to be in touch soon. Thank you very much.

John Odada:
Thank you very much for having us. It's been a pleasure.

Fahrin Ribeiro:
Thank you. Thank you. Henry thank you. John it was great having a chat with you.

Henry Rymer:
Thank you, take care, all the best.

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